No humanity here: the voices of asylum seeking children

23 Mar

There is no humanity here… that thing, I can promise you (Asylum seeking child in Norway)

I was lucky to go see Nowhere Home on Thursday night,  a documentary screened as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London this year. Lucky because of many things: I’ve always wanted to go to this festival but this is the first time I am in one of the cities it’s held. The documentary is fantastic, and I got to see the director, the Norwegian Margreth Olin, for a Q&A session afterwards.

The movie exposes the Norwegian treatment of asylum-seeking unaccompanied children.  Basically, unaccompanied children under 15 years receive similar treatment to those national children under the State’s custody and are under the responsibility of the Child Protection Agency.  However, children from the ages of 15 – 18 are under the responsibility of the Norwegian Immigration Directorate (UDI); a practice criticized by the Committee on the Rights of the Child,  along with the fact that children are not given effective protection by their guardians, that the asylum procedures take too long and that age determining procedures are indecent, culturally insensitive and generally unreliable.

If you are one of these children between 15 – 18, you will be allowed to stay in a reception center where you get a roof over your head and food. However, you have no access to education (except for the preparation they give you for the day of your return, according to Olin).  As an 18th birthday present you get a ticket back to your country of origin.

The painful stories of 20 children are portrayed in this film, most of them are from Afghanistan or Iraq, and some from different African countries. Three particular stories are developed more in-depth; one is the story of Hassan and Hussein from Afghanistan, two brothers who are left alone after their families were slaughtered. The youngest, Hussein, was stabbed the same day his family was murdered, he was only 11 years old. In Norway, he suffers from severe PTSD and his legs are paralysed. They are alone against the system.

Goli, an Iraqi Kurd who is returned to Kurdistan the day after he turned 18,  is another one of the main characters in this film.  After the murder of his dad, his mom married another man who physically abused him. He has countless scars in his body, some a gift from his stepfather, but the majority are self inflicted. He narrates with pride that he beat his stepfather: he hurts himself more that anyone could. He can’t control it, he states, he can’t control his acts. When the authorities call his family upon his return, they receive a clear threat that if they send him, his stepfather will kill him.

The hardest part of watching these children’s testimonies is identifying the one common trait between them: utter hopelessness. No dreams, no future. They live, as one of them said, awaiting the day they turn 18 and are sent back, in his words, to their deaths.

But Norway isn’t alone in this. The Swedish Migration Board leads the European Return Platform for Unaccompanied Minors (ERPUM), an EU project funded by the Return Fund – Community Actions. The Project partners are Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK. The projects make it possible to effectively and rapidly return rejected asylum-seeking children.  As the Platform’s website announces, it has established contacts and will cooperate with the governments, international organizations and non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the former has been described as UNICEF in 2010 as the “world’s most dangerous place to be a child”.

According to UNHCR, 17.700 unaccompanied children claimed asylum in 2011 in 69 countries. The majority of them from Somalia and Afghanistan, at least 12,000  are thought to enter the EU each year.  12,000 children! God forbid they will destroy the EU’s economy!

Living in the UK, I find myself constantly disappointed by the anti-immigration media coverage of refugee and migrant issues.  Disappointment is a understatement, I’m being polite.  Are refugees really a burden for these countries? The UK for example, is home to less than 2% of the world’s refugees, while 80% of the worlds refugees live in developing countries. However,  we are still constantly enlightened by The Daily Mail‘s brilliant reporting on the issue. This, however, is a matter for another blog post.

The documentary has some amazing reflections made by Olin and the children she interviewed. Some stayed with me and have been bouncing around my head for the last 24 hours:

What kind of humanity are we talking about, when we stop seeing the individual? What kind of societies are we living in, when we treat children from another nationality as criminals and less deserving than our own?

Hussein, one of the children interviewed, states in the beginning of the movie: ‘God divided happiness and sorrow, he gave some people sorrow and other people happiness. I am one of the people living in sorrow’. I wish I could think otherwise, but there is little in the treatment of asylum seekers in these countries that gives me that possibility.

Olin believes change might happen in Norway, her activism has had individual impact in some cases and hopefully will have a more general one impact on policy too. It is possible to make a difference.

She starts her movie by making viewers imagine Norwegian children swimming to shore from a boat, desperate and vulnerable, and then being rejected by authorities. Do we really need to do this to be able to demand the respect for these children’s human rights? It all seems to point at that fact that we do.

One of the powerful reflections one of these kids makes seems appropriate to end this. After knowing one of them was granted a leave to remain on human rights grounds, he says: They say he can stay because of human rights concerns. Does this mean I’m not human?  I wish I could explain what that means, legally, to him. I have been working with refugees and asylum seekers for some time, so as a lawyer, I know I could. But not as a person. That, I simply cannot do.

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3 Responses to “No humanity here: the voices of asylum seeking children”

  1. latinamericanwomenwearearrings March 23, 2013 at 10:40 pm #

    Hi there! me again.. stalking you (joke). I have been going though my reader and rebloged a TED short film on empathy, I think it goes really well with what you wrote here, do you mind if I reblog your post? Thanks for sharing this.. and how come I haven’t heard of this Festival? I’l try to see if I manage to go to the city tomorrow.. Would love to see something. It touched me to learn that you work with refugees, tough work.. My dad used to do that when he was studying in Holland. Back then it was political refugees from the dictatorships in Latin America.
    Let me know your feelings about being rebloged, please, it’s not like I have a big fan base, I don’t, it was just weird not asking and just doing it.
    xx

    • thelundians March 24, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

      Hi! Please feel free to reblog the post, thanks for that! The festival was amazing, hope you had a chance to go! Working with refugees is hard indeed, but I’ve also found it very rewarding. Have a great Sunday! xoxo

  2. latinamericanwomenwearearrings March 25, 2013 at 10:10 pm #

    Reblogged this on Latin-American Women Wear Earrings and commented:
    This goes well to demonstrate a bit about the lack of empathy and its consequences that I reblogged from TED’s talks recently. We should all just try to show a little love and tenderness.. Especially when children are involved!!

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